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Taking Sides: A Conversation with ‘Banshees of Inisherin’ Stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson

Martin McDonagh is a singular voice. Whether in his acclaimed plays such as “The Pillowman” or his Oscar-winning films including  “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” his scripts are packed full of darkness, humor and heart — sometimes all in the same moment. And his actors adore it, particular Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, the stars of his latest, “The Banshees of Inisherin.” The pair first united for McDonagh’s 2008 feature debut, “In Bruges,” and the reunion has been a long time coming.

“Martin’s scripts, they can ask you to fight your way out of a dark room with just barely a candlelight or match,” raves Farrell, who also starred in “Seven Psychopaths” for the filmmaker.

“That man, he can’t write a bad line,” says an equally enthusiastic Gleeson, who first worked with McDonagh on his 2004 Oscar-winning short film “Six Shooter.” Gleeson even asked McDonagh to help him out with some material for his recent hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live,” though he admits the writer was “pushing it a bit at times.” While he won’t divulge the rejected ideas, Gleeson laughs heartily and notes, “He was a scamp. He was basically trying to get me killed.” In many ways, “SNL” was another reunion for the trio — Gleeson did it at Farrell’s urging, and his co-star joined in for the monologue and to pose for photos in a headshot sketch.

Dan Doperalski for Variety

In “Banshees,” McDonagh examines something rarely, if ever, seen on screen — the dissolution of a close male friendship. There is no major inciting incident, no betrayal that sets things in motion for the two men at the center. It’s simply that Gleeson’s Colm has grown weary of the dullness of Farrell’s Pádraic. When Pádraic refuses to respect Colm’s wish to be left alone, the latter resorts to drastic measures — threatening to cut off a finger each time Pádraic speaks to him. And he means it — McDonagh won’t hesitate to damage an appendage, as evidenced by his plays “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “A Behanding in Spokane.” 

Set against the backdrop of the Irish Civil War in 1923 on a small island, the pair can’t help but run into one another and have to deal with the input of their tight-knit community. That includes Pádraic’s voice-of-reason sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) and Dominic (Barry Keoghan), the only resident who might be duller than Pádraic. 

Variety recently spoke to Farrell and Gleeson about McDonagh’s beautiful chaos, why it took so long for this reunion to happen and the value of cool in a script. 

Do you remember the first time you two met?

Brendan Gleeson: I met him in the Chelsea Hotel a year or two before “In Bruges” because I was trying to get a movie made, an adaptation of a Flann O’Brien book. It’s kind of a crazy movie so I met him wondering, “Would you be interested in becoming involved in it?” And he was incredibly up for it. And we just connected in a kind of a very odd way. You just find there’s a kind of commonality in the way we both approached the work. 

In other ways, we were different. I remember him telling me that he’d been living for seven years in hotels. I don’t understand how you do that. His schedule had been that relentless. I said, “Geez, I’m not sure I could live like that.”

Colin, what did you think of Brendan Gleeson before you met him? What was that first meeting like for you?

Colin Farrell: He’s the elder statesman for fellas of my ilk at home, an incredible representation of the potential of our culture to reach a global stage and to be moved by art. So I was a little bit nervous! But nervousness just means you care. But within 30 seconds the nerves were gone. And I was only sober like a week or two when we met and I think he knew that because he had a couple of bottles of water. It would have been a very different meeting if it had been a year before! But from the get go, it was easy. 

I know everyone probably asks this, but why did it take so long for you to reunite after “In Bruges”?

Gleeson: I think Martin didn’t want to go off half-cocked. He didn’t want to wait until we were on set and find out the stuff wasn’t actually that good.

Farrell: It’s respect for his audience, isn’t it? So many people have come up over the years and expressed their deep affection for “In Bruges.” He was keenly aware of that. 

Gleeson: Ultimately, he didn’t want the three us to come together and blow it. He ultimately has to write this stuff. He had a version of it seven years ago and he wasn’t happy with it. Three years ago he had this version and he asked what I thought. But he kind of knew. I know you were a bit nervous about it because it was a little less active.

Farrell: Yeah. And the version we read seven years ago was quote-unquote-cooler. I read a quote from Martin recently where he said he’s trying to weed
all the cool out of his work. But yeah, I was nervous. 

Dan Doperalski for Variety

Gleeson: It’s never going to happen with Martin that he weeds the cool out. 

Farrell: Right. I think he was finding you don’t have to have a high volume to have the depth and intensity. You don’t have to have volume, you don’t have to have chaos. There’s always going to be a bit of chaos, I mean, the idea of you with no fingers is chaos!

What’s it like to read a new Martin McDonagh script? It must be a special kind of excitement.

Gleeson: It’s so bold. He makes these bold choices. He took a friendship and he deliberately disrupted it. He throws all the cards in the air in his writing. He’s told me before he likes to put a roadblock in the way. He gives himself a situation that is almost completely impossible.

Farrell: He boxes himself in. 

Gleeson: Exactly! You’re like, “How are you going to get out of that one?”

Farrell: He boxes us in, as well.

Gleeson: And his resolution is never complete because it’s always driven by questions. I have to say, it’s been absolutely amazing to see the different interpretations people have. 

Farrell: And I’ve learned more about the film, as an ever-living, organic thing, from people.

Gleeson: And people reveal more about themselves the way they interpret the film.

And who they side with.

Gleeson: Oh, I think we know who they side with and it’s not me.

No! That is not true.

Farrell: No, no! Tell him!

People can sympathize with breaking up with a friend and how tough that is.

Gleeson: Yes, that is part of it and Martin does a really good job on showing that.

Farrell: There is no good guy and no bad guy, that’s the thing. 

Gleeson: You know my wife said, “You just have to live with the idea of being the bad guy.” I said, “But somebody who has to do that — they’re not escaping from the pain.” And she said, “Yeah, but you have agency. The person who’s dumped has no agency. And that’s why people feel drawn to him.”

Farrell: But the levels of empathy and the person who has agency can really complicate things. It can be toxic for the person who needs that space and that freedom. Because if you ever loved that person, that love doesn’t die just because you’ve made the decision to step away.

Gleeson: And the guy who’s doing the dumping is ready to go. He’s examined it in a way and taken time that the person being dumped hasn’t had time to process yet so of course they’re going to feel for you. But it’s hard on both.

Farrell: We have a scene at the end of the film, and I’ve never seen the ruination of a person who dissolved a relationship in the same way. It’s almost like you’re a goblin, you’ve shrank.